ON THE Fifth of May 2022, I breakfasted in Dingwall in the small but splendid hall of Tulloch Castle Hotel after a night quite unhaunted by the ghostly Green Lady, for whom the hotel bar is named (well, that is where its spirits are found). Indeed, the only tortured soles causing me apprehension were those on the bottom of my feet, which were making a valiant effort to inform me that my hiking shoes needed replacing. Not tomorrow or the next day but today. And yesterday would have been far better.
Tulloch Castle Hotel
I distracted myself from this podiatric protest by considering my surroundings. Unlike Tain’s Mansfield Castle Hotel, in which I had breakfasted the previous morning, Tulloch Castle had been an actual castle, rather than a mansion house with decorative embellishments.
Parts of the castle may have been a tower dating back to the 12th century, which was incorporated into a larger structure after James V (1512-1542) granted Duncan Bain (c. 1489-1559) a charter of land in the final year of his reign. This was upgraded by Charles II (1630-1685) to a free barony for Duncan’s 3× great-grandson, Sir Donald Bain (1640-1716) in 1678.
The Bains of Tulloch were an offshoot of Clan Mackay, which split away circa 1433 after Mackays fought on both sides of the Battle of Drumnacoub. Their founder was John Bain Mackay, where ‘Bain’ (Gaelic bàn) means ‘fair-haired.’ In 1672, Sir Donald (John’s 6× great-grandson) registered a coat of arms with Lord Lyon, King of Arms showing a gold wolf’s head on blue. This alluded to a claim (which later proved erroneous) that a Bain of Tulloch had slain the last wolf in Scotland.
Bains & Davidsons
The Bains’ power, wealth and influence were at their height under Sir Donald but high mortality and his successors’ poor choices saw it wane until his cousin, Kenneth Bain (1719-1768), was forced to sell the castle in 1762. The purchaser was another cousin, West India merchant Henry Davidson (1726-1781), whose mother had been a Bain.
Tulloch Castle remained in Davidson hands for almost two centuries. It passed, on Henry’s death in 1781, to his brother Duncan Davidson (1733-1739), who was MP for Cromartyshire from 1790 to 1796 and a partner in the profitable Caribbean sugar trade. His son Henry Davidson (1771–1827) inherited it next, then his son, Duncan Davidson (1800–1881), who acquired the sobriquet ‘the Stag’.
Like his namesake grandfather, the younger Duncan was an MP and a shareholder of the Grenadian Mount Gay sugar plantation (not to be confused with the Barbadian Mount Gay, which lends its name to the oldest rum brand in the world, established in 1702 and still going strong).
This Duncan was also a lawyer and soldier, not to mention a rampant womaniser, which is how he earnt his nickname. In addition to having had five wives (they kept dying) and eighteen legitimate children, he was said to have fathered somewhere in the region of thirty illegitimate ones, starting by impregnating his first wife’s unmarried sister in 1829, four years into his own marriage.
A golden stag features in the centre of the Davidson of Tulloch arms. This is not an allusion to Duncan, having long been in use before he was born, but probably contributed to his having that particular nickname. The other charges are three pheons (stylised arrowheads) and the red hand of Ulster. The latter usually indicated the recipient of an Ulster land grant from James VI after Tyrone’s Rebellion was crushed. However, the Davidsons of Tulloch may simply have ‘borrowed’ it from the arms of another Davidson branch.
The Green Lady
The castle’s alleged ghost, the Green Lady, is said to be the shade of the Stag’s teenage daughter, Elizabeth Davidson, who unexpectedly stumbled across her father in flagrante with one of the maids.
Unfortunately for her, stumbling seems to have been her thing and, as she back out and fled down the stairs, quite distraught, she tripped and fell headlong down them, striking her head (or breaking her neck, accounts vary).
The castle changed considerably during Davidson ownership, being damaged by fire in 1838 and 1845 and restored and extended in 1891. It passed out of their hands in 1917 with the death of the Stag’s grandson – another Duncan Davidson (1865–1917) – who died without heirs.
His widow remined there until her own death until it passed to Angus Douglas Vickers (1904-1990), a member of the family owning the aircraft, shipbuilding and armaments giant Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd; his mother had been a granddaughter of the Stag.
Vickers had the castle altered again, with a whole new wing added, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer (1864-1929).
Dormitory & Hotel
After serving as the Vickers’ family home for several years, Vickers leased the castle to Ross-shire County Council in 1947 and sold it to them outright ten years later.
Under council ownership, the castle became a dormitory for Dingwall Academy, housing female students from the west coast. It remained so until 1976, after which it was abandoned and fell into disrepair over the following two decades. In 1996, it was bought by the local Macaulay family and renovated before opening as a hotel.
It remains a hotel, as of 2022, which is how I came to stay and breakfast there.
Descent into Dingwall
Putting the castle behind me, I descended the hill into Dingwall proper (Inbhir Pheofharain) at a slow and steady pace the Green Lady would probably have mocked. I reached the valley bottom relatively intact, though my disintegrating footwear was quite keen to introduce at least some measure of discomfort.
St Clement’s Church
On my way, I passed St Clement’s Church, built in 1803 to replace its ruinous Mediaeval predecessor and constructed largely of material recycled from it. Designed by the architect and civil engineer George Burn (1759-1820), its alignment is a little odd, with its classical façade facing north, away from the town centre. This was done, not for spiritual reasons but mercenary ones, masquerading as aesthetics.
Basically, the only way Dingwall could afford to build this new church was if Henry Davidson chipped in with a big wad of cash, and he was only going to do that if it suited him. Thus, the church is built to look pretty from the direction of Tulloch Castle. Its actual main entrance faces the town in its rather plainer back.
St Clement’s spire was not the only sticky-up thing I could see ahead of me. Dingwall presented quite the choice in architectural erections.
The obelisk on the left (in the photo above) is the Cromartie Memorial, which juts out of a flower bed in an otherwise small and unremarkable car park. It commemorates the Scottish statesman George Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Cromartie (1630–1714), who supported Charles II and rose to power after his 1660 Restoration, becoming his chief minister in Scotland and later lord justice general under Queen Anne (1665-1714).
The memorial as erected in 1714 was considerably larger and more prominent, today’s car park flowerbed then being a mound in an open space. An earthquake in 1800 gave the memorial a pronounced tilt in the style of Pisa’s famous Leaning Tower, which was distinctive but ultimately became dangerously unstable.
In 1920, the memorial was demolished and a smaller but similar replacement was erected the following year. It is that which still stands there today, not toppling onto anybody’s car.
Here’s the Thing
Dingwall’s English name derives from Old Norse þingvöllr, meaning ‘meeting-place’ or, more literally, ‘field of the thing’. A thing was a governing popular assembly, or folkmoot, made up of the free people of the community and often took place on natural and man-made mounds. The mound on which the Cromartie Memorial was erected was one such mound, having been the site of the thing and later the equivalent Mediaeval moothill.
The mounds upon which things were held were often burial mounds. Dingwall’s wasn’t until 1714, when the Earl of Cromartie’s coffin was interred underneath it, a late but not inappropriate conversion to that purpose.
Returning our attention to the photo, the castellated tower peeking out over the treetops is another, more grandiose memorial, this time to Sir Hector Macdonald (1853-1903), a popular local war hero also known as ‘Fighting Mac’, who distinguished himself in Afghanistan, South Africa and Sudan.
Following several heroic exploits in Afghanistan in 1874, Fighting Mac – then a colour sergeant – was offered the choice of a Victoria Cross or a commission and chose the latter, becoming an officer. While he never therefore wore the VC, he went on to earn the Distinguished Service Order in Sudan in 1899 and was knighted in 1901 for his service in the Second Boer War (1899-1902).
Ceylon & Suicide
A public hero, Mac was appointed commander-in-chief of British forces in Ceylon but almost immediately fell out with colonial society on the island.
Accusations of homosexuality were levelled against him which, though not illegal in Ceylon, was both contrary to army regulations and a cause for scandal. Facing court martial in 1903, he shot himself. Only then did it emerge that he had a secret wife and son.
A subsequent Government Commission found the accusations to be unfounded and motivated by spite and jealously, which they may well have been, although rumours abut his sexuality had followed him beforehand. Either way, it was a ridiculous reason to lose a celebrated war hero and his native Dingwall was having none of it.
Money was raised for a memorial by public subscription and the monument was opened with in 1907 with suitable pomp and ceremony.
Dingwall Town Hall
The third sticky-up structure in the previous photo is the cupola of Dingwall Town Hall, added in 1773 to the 1745 building. It incorporates a clock donated by Maj Gen John Scott (1725-1775), who had been for MP for Tain Burghs between 1761 and ’68.
Scott was a highly successful gambler, who won himself a staggering fortune of around £500 k (equivalent to about £60 m today), so buying Dingwall a civic clock was to him a trivial expense.
It’s hard to make out in the photo, but the decorative element above the doorway is the coat of arms of the old Burgh of Dingwall. This was ‘a sun in all its splendour’ – i.e., with many rays and often (at the artist’s whim) depicted with a human face – surrounded by five gold stars, all over a blue field. These arms went out of use when the burgh was dissolved in 1975 but were re-granted to Dingwall Community Council in 1996.
The gables and portico are a later addition still, added during a 1905 remodelling by local architect William Cumming Joass (1833-1919).
His son John James Joass (1868-1952) would follow him into that profession and go on to design a number of London buildings including the Swan & Edgar department store, whose building still stands facing Piccadilly Circus and was home to Tower Records from 1986 to 2007 (branded as Virgin from 2003).
When the tollbooth at the heart of the hall was erected in 1745, Dingwall had already been a town for over 500 years.
It was created a royal burgh by Alexander II (1198-1249) in 1226 and its charter was renewed by James IV (1473-1513) in 1497. By this time, it had already long been the seat of the Earls of Ross, who lived in the 11th-century Dingwall Castle (sadly demolished in 1817) and so it made sense that Dingwall became the seat of the Sheriff of Ross-shire when James IV established a separate sheriffdom from Inverness. Thus, it became the county town.
Dingwall remained the county town in 1889, when Ross-shire and Cromarty-shire were merged to form Ross & Cromarty but lost its status in 1975 when a reorganisation of Scottish local government saw Ross & Cromarty become a district within the new Highland Region. The town hall ceased to be used as such then, instead becoming Dingwall Museum, which it still remains today.
The museum was closed at the hour at which I stood outside it, else I might have been tempted to delay setting off and take a look inside. Since that was not an option, I turned and strode away, soon reaching the end of Dingwall’s High Street.
I acquired some snacks and water during my journey back down the High Street. At its far end, I found a couple of war memorials…
Great War Memorial
The first memorial I came to was the usual WW1 affair. This was unveiled in 1922 and is topped by a statue of a Highland soldier in Brodie helmet and kilt, bayonet affixed to his Lee-Enfield rifle; as is usual, WW2 plaques had been later added.
I’ve noticed that, while the ever-popular cross is used on many war memorials in Scotland, topping it with one or more soldiers instead is also a widespread choice. I don’t have concrete numbers but, anecdotally, I’d say that seems to happen more in Scotland than in England.
Boer War Memorial
It’s possible that the reason Dingwall didn’t go for a cross on their Great War memorial was that they already had one of those:
This memorial was erected by the officers and men of the Seaforth Highlanders in memory of comrades lost in the Second Boer War and has 180 names inscribed on it. The Seaforth Highlanders fought in South Africa as part of the Highland Brigade, which was commanded by Maj Gen Hector MacDonald, whose own personal monument we have already discussed.
Battle of Dingwall
Dingwall is no stranger to war and its casualties and was the site of its very own battle in 1411. This was one of a wider series of clan battles that formed a war of succession pertaining to the Earldom of Ross…
Duke of Albany
Alexander Leslie, Earl of Ross (c. 1368-1402) had died nine years earlier, leaving as his heiress his daughter, Euphemia Leslie. Though she succeeded him de jure as Countess of Ross, her maternal grandfather, Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany (c. 1340-1420), made her his ward and exercised her authority to his own benefit.
This was pretty much in character for Robert, who had made a career out of acquiring land and titles and had been acting as Scotland’s unofficial regent since the death of his brother, King Robert III (c. 1337-1406); Robert’s heir, now James I (1394-1437), was a prisoner in England at the time.
Donald of Islay
Others, however, also saw an opportunity to wrest control of Euphemia and hence the Earldom of Ross. These included Donald of Islay, Lord of the Isles (d. 1423), who based his claim on his marriage to Euphemia’s aunt Mariota, who was her heir as Euphemia was unmarried and had no children.
Regardless of the merits of his claim, what Donald did have was the Lordship of the Isles and the chiefship of Clan Donald, which meant that he could raise a sizeable Hebridean army. So, he did. Donald landed 10,000 men in Ross and set about seizing control.
Angus Dubh Mackay
Donald’s army met opposition at Dingwall, in the form of 4,000 men, drawn from Clan Mackay and its allies and led by Angus Dubh Mackay of Strathnaver (c. 1375-1433).
Angus Dubh (‘black Angus’) was said to be incensed by Donald’s mistreatment of his friends and relatives, though he may also have been a cousin of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar (c. 1375-1435), the Duke of Albany’s nephew. Whatever his reason, he attacked Donald’s army in Dingwall, hoping to stop their advance.
Outcome & Aftermath
Angus utterly failed, which isn’t all that surprising, seeing as how he was outnumbered five to two. Not only did Donald of Islay win, capturing Dingwall Castle (the seat of the Earls of Ross), but Angus was captured and his brother Roderick slain.
Donald marched on towards Aberdeen but never reached it. Instead, he was fought to a draw by the Earl of Mar in the Battle of Harlaw, leading to a strategic victory for Albany as Donald – though technically undefeated – was logistically forced to withdraw; without a decisive victory, he could not maintain his momentum.
Dingwall Railway Station
I was also struggling to maintain my momentum, having not really built any up yet. I had yet to even leave Dingwall and I was already flagging. Dingwall took the opportunity to taunt me by presenting Dingwall Railway Station as an alternative to tedious all-day plodding.
Dingwall station was built by the Inverness and Ross-shire Railway (I&RR) and opened in 1862 when a line was completed from Inverness. Given that Inverness was my actual destination for the day, this made it more tempting than it might otherwise have been. But, although generally fatigued and footsore from several days’ walking, I stayed stubbornly resolute. Passing the station by, I continued onwards. I needed new trainers, not the next train.
From Dingwall Station, I headed south down Station Road, which quickly turned into the A862. This A-road was originally engineered by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) as one of many such works for the Commissioners of Highland Roads and Bridges. Classified as the A88 in 1922, and then renumbered as the A9 in 1935, it remained the main route north until the 1980s, when the opening of the Cromarty and Kessock Bridges rerouted the A9 to bypass Dingwall altogether.
Old Road Alignment
Even if it had been downgraded since its A9 days, the A862 was still a busy road, roaring with traffic, and had clearly been widened and realigned at some point. Though that sounds unpleasant to walk beside it was actually a blessing as the old alignment – Telford’s original alignment – remained close by for use as a cycle and a footpath.
With a low stone wall and a screen of trees blocking off sight and much of the sound of the A-road, this was a surprisingly serene section of the day’s walk. Not what I had expected at all.
Both Station Roads, old and new, came to an end at the Maryburgh Roundabout, named for an adjoining village. Here, I had a decision to make; I could go straight across and follow the A862 down Telford’s route to Conon Bridge (Drochaid Sguideil), where he had bridged the River Conon (Abhainn Chonainn). Or I could turn left and take the A835 and its bridge – both constructed circa 1980 – for a slightly more direct route, shaving half a mile off my day. There wasn’t a lot in it.
North Coast 500
I had assumed that I’d probably go via Conon Bridge, which is the route taken by the North Coast 500 tourist route but its main draw for me – Telford’s alignment – were somewhat diminished by its modern A-road appearance and Telford’s 1809 bridge having been demolished and replaced in 1969.
The Proximal Option
I almost tossed a coin but, in the end, I succumbed to proximity. The A835 was the first exit from the roundabout and the A862 the second.
The A835 was a busy two-lane clearway but it did at least have a proper pedestrian pavement beside it as it snaked across flat fields. If I stuck to its route, I had just 11 miles to go to Inverness, a road sign told me, but I doubted very much that I would be doing that. Exactly what route I would be taking was undecided; I was very much in ‘wait and see how I feel’ mode.
The Black Isle
The A-road crossed the railway and then, about a half a mile from Maryburgh Roundabout, the River Conon. From atop it, the bridge appeared to be pretty much a typical 1980s A-road affair.
Half a mile further on from that was a staggered crossroads, where the B9163 crossed the A835. I was now on the Black Isle (an t-Eilean Dubh), as the peninsula between Dingwall and Inverness is called.
The village of Conon Bridge grew up around its namesake from 1809 onwards, prior to which there was only a ford and, slightly upstream, a couple of ferrymen’s houses for what was then Scuddel Ferry (with various spellings).
Scuddel Ferry had operated since at least 1586 but ceased operation in 1809 with the completion of the bridge.
In common with some other ferries in the region, the ferrymen did not enjoy a good reputation and where characterised as rude, swindling drunkard with a tendency to overload their poorly-maintained ferry boats. In 1667, an accident inevitably occurred, in which a ferry boat upturned and sank, drowning 22 passengers.
The ferrymen were paid several hundred pounds in compensation for the loss of their livelihoods but their replacement by the bridge couldn’t come soon enough for some locals. In 1808, when the bridge was still unfinished, people were crossing the Conon on its scaffolding rather than take the ferry!
The Scuddel name persists in the Gaelic name for the bridge, Drochaid Sguideil (‘Scuddel Bridge’) but its etymology is uncertain. The ending is almost certainly from Old Norse dalr (‘dale’) but there are multiple ideas for what the first component might be ranging from skattr (‘tax’) to sku (‘vista’).
John o’ Groats Trail
While I didn’t need to decide what ‘Scuddel’ meant, I did need to decide where I was going next. It wasn’t going to be into Conan Bridge, but it could be straight on down the A835 or left up the B9163. This B-road runs up the top edge of the Black Isle, crossing the modern A9 at the southern end of Cromarty Bridge. There, if I chose, I could pick up the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT) and follow it south through the village of Culbokie (An Cùil Bhàicidh, ‘the haunted nook’) and across the Black Isle to Kessock Bridge.
I didn’t choose the JOGT, as it turned out. I had thought I might but, having waited to see how I felt about it, I found I wasn’t feeling it at all. Instead, as I peered at my Ordnance Survey map, a new plan started to formulate…
A Cunning Plan
My new cunning plan involved turning left and taking the B9163 for a distance of no more than 50 m and then turning right onto an unclassified road running parallel to the A-road. Before the A835 was built (circa 1980), this was the B9162, following an old road alignment that ran from Conon Bridge to Croftnacreich, near to North Kessock and what was then the Kessock Ferry across the Beauly Firth.
Not the B9162
For much of its journey across the Black Isle, the A835 took over and obliterated the old B9162 but in places the old B-road still runs alongside, now declassified and almost forgotten, an access road for those farms and houses that face onto it. In fact, the only bit of road that retains the B9162 number is a 430 m village street within Conan Bridge.
An Excellent Alternative
The former B9162 was an altogether more rewarding walk than the A835 had been. It had dry stone walling, gorse bushes, lambs, butterflies and almost no traffic. And the only traffic it did have was a singular Royal Mail van. And, even though the A835 was only one field’s width away, it was pretty quiet. I very much enjoyed it.
The old road came to an end at a crossroads with the B9169, another minor road leading off across the Black Isle. There, the OS 1st edition (1881) showed a Post Office but it was gone by the time the 2nd ed was published in 1907 and where it was once stood is now just the corner of an empty field.
The way onwards, as shown in both editions, is now a cul-de-sac, on account of the A835 veering onto the old B9162 alignment just ahead. This meant I had to turn right, joining the B9169 for about 150 m, until it dumped me back onto the A835 just ahead of where the two alignments merged.
For better or for worse, I was now back on the A-road.
I walked alongside the A835 for another two miles, as it slowly climbed up onto higher ground. Along the way, it passed a few isolated farmhouses and turn-offs but I had decided on a specific side road to take and was waiting patiently until I reached it.
Perhaps ironically, there was only about a mile of A385 left when I left it. Ahead, it would end at the Tore Roundabout, its traffic joining the A9 and heading south to Kessock Bridge. I too was heading for that destination but by a more roundabout route.
The Kilcoy-Redcastle Road is actually, really, genuinely unclassified since even Highland Council has given it a U-number. It is, for administrative purposes, known to them as U2640. As you can see, it is narrow, quiet and delightfully leafy. I did not regret diverting onto it at all.
Mains of Kilcoy
I ambled joyfully along underneath the canopy of trees for about two thirds of a mile, passing various cottages and farmsteads on the way. At the end of this distance, the road forked. On the left, the paved road veered away, while on the right, an unmade driveway continued on towards an ultimate dead end at the farmstead of Mains of Kilcoy, next to which stands Kilcoy Castle.
Today’s Kilcoy Castle was built in 1891 as a restoration of the crumbling ruin of its predecessor. That incarnation dated to about 1618, though construction may have started as early as 1580.
Stewarts & Mackenzies
The land and its unfinished castle were owned by the Stewart family until 1616, when a charter confirmed their ownership by Alexander Mackenzie (c. 1578-1650), third son of Colin Cam Mackenzie of Kintail (1536-1594), the Mackenzie clan chief. Alexander’s possession of Kilcoy was based on his having married Jean Stewart née Fraser (1579-1622), the widow of Sir James Stewart of Kilcoy who had died without heirs.
The Kilcoy Estate (Cùil Challaidh, ‘nook of the hazel-place’) then passed down through the Mackenzies of Kilcoy, and remained by occupied by them until 1813 when Colin Mackenzie (1782-1845), who lived and worked in London, removed the castle roof for tax reasons (a roofed building being taxable, where an unroofed ruin was not). It then quickly fell to ruin.
Sir Evan Mackenzie
The male line of Mackenzies of Kilcoy ended with Sir Evan Mackenzie (1816-1883). He had been a prominent pioneer involved in the development of Moreton Bay and Brisbane in Queensland, during which his relation with the Aborigines had been harsh, shading to murderous.
While his fellow colonisers cared little about that, they didn’t much like it when his ruthless and blatant thirst for power, wealth and influence was directed at their expense and he badly overplayed his hand, resulting in his eventual return to Scotland, his financial and political capital exhausted.
Sir Evan’s son Colin having predeceased him, his estate (including Kilcoy Castle) passed to Isabell Mackenzie (1845-1933), the eldest of his four daughters. Her husband was Lt Col John Burton (1835-1901) of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and he added the Mackenzie name to his own upon her inheritance.
It was these Burton-Mackenzies who had the castle ruin restored in 1891, employing the architect Alexander Ross (1834-1925), who usually specialised in churches and played a huge part in the shaping of Inverness. In addition to rebuilding the existing castle ruin, Ross added a new four-story wing to its north side.
In 1911, Isabell’s daughter and namesake Isabell Burton-Mackenzie (b. 1872) was appointed the ‘Travelling Organiser’ of the Highland Home Industries Board, an industry standards board for the knitting and tweed industry.
In this capacity, she conducted a tour of the Outer Hebrides in 1912, armed with a pocket Kodak camera and a diary in which she recorded her observations and made pen and ink sketches, capturing a snapshot of inter-war crofting life.
Mounting debts caused the Burton-Mackenzies to sell the castle to Eagle Star Insurance. It then passed through further subsequent owners – the Robinsons from 1964, who restored it again, and the McAndrews from 1991. Since 2012, when it was sold for £1.5 m, it has belonged to the Menking family, who hail from Texas but claim to be to related to the original Stewarts of Kilcoy. Well, good luck to them, I guess.
As Kilcoy Castle is a private residence at the end of a dead-end road, I couldn’t really go marching up its driveway to gawk at it. I couldn’t even sneak my way in, because my every move was being watched by three pairs of eyes.
Continuing on down the road, I soon found that it emerged from the trees to be flanked by open fields. These, in turn, were promptly followed by the church and handful of houses that comprise the village labelled ‘Newton’ on early OS maps but ‘Fettes’ on more recent ones.
Tore Art Gallery
I perched on the wall of the church for a rest. Built as a Free Church and opened in 1866, it was sold in 2004 and now houses the Tore Art Gallery. It stood close by a crossroads, at which the Kilcoy-Redcastle Road crossed the A832, which linked Muir of Ord and the Tore Roundabout.
Killearnan & Fettes War Memorial
Sandwiched between the gallery and the A832 was the Killearnan & Fettes War Memorial (Killearnan being the parish). This war memorial completely bucked the usual trend by being topped with neither a soldier or a cross but instead being merely a stone pillar.
When I felt sufficiently rested, I hopped up off the wall and nipped across the A832 to resume my journey amid open fields upon the Kilcoy-Redcastle Road. This carried me past the farmhouse labelled as ‘Fettes’ on early OS maps, whose name appears to have spread to envelop the old Newton.
I had gone less than half a mile from the crossroads when I came to an isolated, whitewashed cottage and a potentially confusing road layout.
Google Maps tells me that the cottage is called Redcastle Cottage but the OS is pretty insistent that its location is actually Chapelton, not that I could actually see any other buildings.
The private driveway, had I followed it, would have taken me to Greenhill House, which originated as an 1860s farm manager’s residence. I didn’t follow it, however, but turned right along the public road.
Magic Wizard Horse
For the next half-mile, the road was tree-lined and running parallel to the Redcastle Burn as it flowed down to meet the Beauly Firth. This was pleasant and helped spur me on – something I needed as I was pretty tired.
Milton of Redcastle
At the end of this road, sitting in the shore, I found the picturesque hamlet of Milton of Redcastle.
Milton of Redcastle grew up beside the castle that gave its name (a red one). As the other part of its name strongly suggests, it also once had a mill, not to mention an inn, shop and smithy.
About the Firth
Beauly Firth (Linne Fharair) is the upper part of a sea inlet into which the River Beauly (Abhainn nam Manach) and River Ness (Abhainn Nis) both empty, and is separated from the lower Moray Firth (Linne Mhoireibh) by a narrow strait, which is where my destination for the day – Inverness (Inbhir Nis)– could be found.
And Where I Joined It
I had joined the firth about two thirds up its length, which was fine by me as that meant I had about five miles of its northern shoreline to amble along – way more coastal walking than the Black Isle section of the JOGT had had on offer.
Before I set off along it, I paused to look west up that part of the firth that I wouldn’t be walking along.
The Old Pier
Stone used to build Telford’s Caledonian Canal was quarried near Milton of Redcastle and taken out to boats on Beauly Firth by means of a long pier, that still still juts out from the shoreline today.
By the time the OS 1st ed was being compiled, some sixty-odd years after the opening of the canal, the pier was in use by the local Volunteer Force as a rifle range, with a target butt set up on its end. The VF was a militia, raised in 1859, that eventually became our modern Territorial Army.
Physically, the road beside the firth appeared to be the same one I was already on, which just turned a corner. Administratively, however, that road had ended when I entered Milton of Redcastle and what had appeared to be a mere side-road joining it had, in fact, taken its place. Officially, it was now the Garguston-Millbank Road, also known to Highland Council (but almost no one else) as the C1039. But what it was called hardly mattered – all that was really important was that, where I could have been stuck beside the A9, I instead would have miles of this:
The Redcastle (an Caisteal Ruadh) for which Milton of Redcastle is named stands nearby, albeit in a perilously ruined state. I had the distinct impression on the day that I couldn’t get close enough to see it but it turns out that I could have, had I made the right diversion. Ah, well.
Redcastle was built from red stone (hence its name) in 1179 by King William the Lion (c.1142-1214).
It had many owners over the centuries before coming into the possession of the Mackenzies in 1492. They held on to it for quite some time and rebuilt it in 1641, just in time for Rory Mackenzie (1608-1682) to get it burnt down by the Covenanters in 1649 on account of his support for Charles I and the Earl of Montrose.
The Mackenzies of Redcastle had branched off from the main Mackenzie line one generation earlier than those of Kilcoy. Their arms were again based on the Mackenzie stag’s head, but this time differenced with the addition of a blue and gold chequered border.
Bankruptcy forced the Redcastle Mackenzies to sell it in 1790 to James Grant of Shewglie (d. 1808), the official British Resident in Hyderabad, who passed it to his cousin, Lt Col Alexander Grant of the Honourable East India Company. In 1824 the castle was sold again, this time to businessman and philanthropist Sir William Fettes (1750-1836).
In 1839, it was sold to Col Hugh Baillie (1777-1866), who already owned Tarradale, the neighbouring estate to the west. He commissioned the architect William Burn (1789–1870) to remodel the castle in 1840.
On the death of Hugh Baillie’s son – Col Henry Baillie (1803-1885), who had been the MP for Inverness-shire from 1840 to 1868 – Redcastle was inherited by Col James Baillie of Dochfour (1859-1931). It remained the Baillies’ residence until WW2, when it was requisitioned by the RAF for use as a munitions store.
The Baillies never moved back in, allowing it to fall derelict and today it lies in ruin, with massive cracks in its walls heralding its inevitable collapse.
Footsore & Fatigued
Speaking of inevitable collapse, I soon found I was struggling a bit as I plodded slowly and painfully down that road. I was still having fun – the shoreline stroll was delightful – but my disintegrating shoes were affecting my gait and thus causing more pain and fatigue than was warranted. I just couldn’t seem to find the energy.
One solution to not having any energy is to get it from the sun, as exemplified by the solar-powered paddleboat New Era, here seen moored to a buoy mid-firth:
Converted from an aluminium Seastrike boat in 2008, New Era is the brainchild of a Dutch electronics engineer named Rolf Schmidt, who settled in his wife’s native Scotland and established his own electronics firm.
Extremely Directional Dolphins
A former employee of the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Rolf was well-placed to combine nautical and electronics experience to create New Era, using her to offer dolphin-watching trips in the Beauly and Moray firths until 2020. There are certainly dolphins to watch; the Moray Firth is said to be home to the most northerly group of bottlenose dolphins in the world.
A little further on, I passed a makeshift rope swing on a tree. This was extremely tempting but I resisted.
At about the halfway point between Milton of Redcastle and the Kessock Bridge, I suddenly found the road flanked by static caravans, as I passed Coulmore Bay Caravan Park. These overlooked the slightly-projecting headland of Coul Point, beyond which I finally got my first glimpse of Kessock Bridge:
After the caravan park, the road went back to being rural and empty, with fields on the landward side and the waters of the firth gently lapping on the other. This lasted for just over a mile, give or take the odd dwelling, and then suddenly I was on an urban street flanked by houses. I had entered Charlestown.
Not to be Confused With…
Charlestown is a village about a mile west of Kessock Bridge and not to be confused with this Charlestown or this one. A planned settlement, it was laid out in 1812 by Sir Charles Mackenzie of Kilcoy (1756-1813).
The shore road continued, now overlooked by houses, as Charlestown shaded into North Kessock.
North Kessock (Ceasag a Tuath) was a ferry point before it had a bridge, and dates back to at least 1437, when the Dominican monastery in Inverness was granted a ferry charter.
Ferries continued to run across the subsequent centuries, using sail and then steam and finally Diesel power. This all ended in 1982 with the opening of the Kessock Bridge (Drochaid Cheasaig), which neither took seven minutes to cross by car nor charged three shillings for the privilege.
Kessock Ferry Disaster
It was practically obligatory for every Highland ferry to have its own tale of horrible disaster, in order to really hammer home how much better a bridge would be. In the case of the Kessock Ferry, this involved a storm in 1894 that killed not only three ferrymen but also three coastguards who tried in vain to rescue them.
The disaster was pretty terrible in itself, with its six deaths, but further unspeakable horror was to materialise when alleged poet William McGonagall (1825-1902) – widely derided as Britain’s worst poet ever on account of his mishandling of metaphor and apparent inability to scan – decided to immortalise the tragedy in his thankfully inimitable style.
The full poem has 14 verses of awfulness, which I cannot bring myself to reproduce, but here are the first two verses as a taster:
’Twas on Friday the 2nd of March, in the year of 1894, That the Storm Fiend did loudly laugh and roar Along the Black Isle and the Kessack Ferry shore, Whereby six men were drowned, which their friends will deplore. The accident is the most serious that has occurred for many years, And their relatives no doubt will shed many tears, Because the accident happened within 200 yards of the shore, While Boreas he did loudly rail and roar.
You were warned.
In an attempt to avoid a ‘Kessock Bridge Disaster’ sequel, maintenance work was under way on the bridge. This had closed the foot & cycle way on the upstream side, necessitating a diversion from the usual signed route for National Cycle Network route 1 to force all walkers and cyclists to use the downstream footway in both directions. This made little difference to my getting up onto it, but would have a much larger one when it came to getting off again…
When it was opened in 1982, Kessock Bridge was the largest cable-stayed bridge in Europe. Don’t think that it was at all unique, though – it was basically a copy of an existing bridge over the Rhine at Düsseldorf, except bigger. This is perhaps because its designer was a German – Hellmut Homberg (1909-1990) – though I can hardly knock the principle of reusing a design you already know works well. Nine years later he would design another British bridge, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge better known as the Dartford Crossing.
While Homberg designed the Kessock Bridge, the actual construction was carried out by the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company, which specialised in bridges during its 144 years of existence (1877-2021) but sadly went out of business last year.
Had the upstream foot & cycleway been open, it would have dropped me – along with National Cycle Network route 1 – off the bridge immediately it made landfall, depositing me in South Kessock to enter Inverness along the River Ness (Inverness means ‘mouth of the River Ness’). But it wasn’t and didn’t.
Because I had crossed on the wrong side, I now had four roaring lanes of the A9 between me and Inverness and no easy way to cross them. It was therefore necessary to continue alongside the A9 for almost half a mile until I reached the Longman Roundabout, where traffic lights made it possible to cross.
From the roundabout, I could enter Inverness alongside Longman Road, which was also a busy A-classified dual carriageway, in this case the A82. This was loud, busy and pretty industrial and absolutely not the prettiest way to enter Inverness. It certainly hammered home how right I had been to abandon the A-road for the shore road en route to the bridge.
Still, whatever its drawbacks, the A82 was direct, carving a swathe through towards the heart of the town. Also, as I followed it, the factories and warehouses gave way to big box retail parks and this, in turn, presented me with a much-needed opportunity.
Amongst the retail park stores, I espied Cotswold Outdoor and my first chance to obtain a new pair of shoes. Or, more accurately, fell-running shoes, which are basically rugged hiking trainers. I seized that chance with both hands…
Minutes later, I was wearing a brand-new set of suitable footwear and had disposed of their predecessor in an in-store bin for that purpose. My feet still hurt, not least because the old shoes had rubbed my toes raw and bloody, but the new shoes felt amazing. Any pain was now residual, not the result on ongoing active infliction of injury.
Unfortunately, in my haste to purchase said shoes, and perhaps because of distracting pain and fatigue, I had managed to transpose my credit card PIN three times while buying them, immediately locking the card. That hadn’t stopped me buying the shoes – I used a different card – but it might stop me checking into my hotel as the locked card was the one I’d booked it with. I was therefore now on a mission to find a suitable cashpoint and – hopefully not garbling my PIN – unlock my card again.
With a bounce in my newly re-shod stride, I made a bee-line for the city centre.
Inverness is the most northern city in the UK and, as Highland Council’s administrative centre, is usually regarded as the capital of the Highlands. Before 1975, when Highland sprang into being as an administrative region, it had been the county town of Inverness-shire, which traditional (and land registry) county I was now in.
Inverness had been important long before that, though, with its first charter as a royal burgh being allegedly granted by David I (c. 1084-1153). And going even further back, the Pictish king Bridei (d. 584) had held court in the area, where he was visited in 569 by St Columba (521-597) who attempted without success to win his Christian conversion.
Inverness Cathedral (Cathair-Eaglais Inbhir Nis) is actually just a tad more recent than St Columba, having been built over a millennium after his death. It was, in fact, constructed in 1869 and was the first new Protestant cathedral to be built following the Reformation.
Of similar age to the cathedral is Inverness Castle (Caisteal Inbhir Nis), which was constructed in 1836.
Courthouse & Prison
Purpose-built as a courthouse and prison, the castle’s outer walls were designed by Joseph Mitchell (1803–1883) – a student of Thomas Telford – while its Sheriff Court was the work of William Burn. The gaol, which was later repurposed as the District Court, was designed by an architect named Thomas Brown (1806–c. 1872), who specialised in prisons and held an appointment as architect to the Prison Board of Scotland.
The Sheriff Court moved out in 2020, relocating to a new Inverness Justice Centre and ending Inverness Castle’s judicial functions. It is now undergoing extensive renovation and remodelling with the aim of opening it the public. This, ironically, meant that it was very much closed to me while I was there.
As is usual, the castle was not the first one on the site, there having been a succession of them on this handy hill overlooking Inverness, starting with one built by Malcolm III (d. 1093) in 1057, after destroying that of his predecessor and enemy, Macbeth (c. 1005-1057) on nearby Crown Hill. Malcolm’s castle lasted roughly 250 years until Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) razed its battlements in 1307.
A Perfidious ‘Parliament’
The castle must presumably have been rebuilt as James I used it for that recurring manoeuvre in Scottish history – the treacherous invitation and subsequent ambush!
James was uncomfortably aware that his authority over the Highland clans was pretty nominal and invited fifty of their chiefs to a supposed parliament at Inverness Castle. Upon their arrival, he had them all arrested and several were summarily executed.
Alexander of Islay
Amongst those not executed but nonetheless pretty livid about it were Alexander of Islay, Lord of the Isles (d. 1449) and his mother, Mariota, Countess of Ross (it was her husband, Alexander’s father, who had fought and won the Battle of Dingwall in 1411).
They were released from imprisonment the following year, upon which event Alexander promptly returned to the Isles to raise an army. Following in his father’s footsteps, he then returned to the mainland with 10,000 men and attempted to seize Inverness Castle.
Alexander never actually managed to take the castle but he did burn the burgh of Inverness. Like you do.
Earl of Huntly
A new castle with tower was built on the site in 1548 by George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly (1514–1562) and played a part in his subsequent undoing. George was nominally a Protestant reformer, though he was actually religiously conservative and his fellow reformers – the Lords of the Congregation – found him an unreliable ally.
Mary, Queen of Scots
One might have expected a proclaimed Protestant to be opposed to the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) but Huntly initially supported her until she squandered that support by stripping him of the Earldom of Moray (which he had been given in 1549), and giving it to her half-brother James Stewart (c. 1531-1570) instead.
Huntly was incensed and returned to his estates to basically sulk. He was still doing this when Mary embarked on a tour of the north-east in 1562. Arriving in Inverness, she expected to be hosted at the castle but Huntly ordered the gates to be shut against her. Her supporters promptly stormed and overran the castle and Huntly, who was not at home, was outlawed.
Defeat & Death
An ever-angrier Huntly marched with an army on Aberdeen, to where the Queen had moved on but, adding insult to injury, he was defeated and captured in the field by none other than James Stewart, Earl of Moray. At this final indignation, Huntly’s fury grew to fatal proportions and he died of apoplexy shortly after his capture. They tried his dead body for treason anyway, along with his still-living son John, who was then executed.
I was fairly angry with myself for getting the PIN wrong on a card I use frequently, though not – I am pleased to say – angry enough to die of apoplexy. Such self-directed rage as I did feel quickly eased off after I had unlocked my card and began to relax. I could now access my finances again, and so could keep the wolves from my door…
This splendid town hall used to be the home of Inverness Burgh Council. Opened in 1882 by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900), it replaced a predecessor on the same site, which had been built in 1708 and enlarged in 1750. The new building cost £13,500 – equivalent to £1.8 m today – and was designed by local architect William Lawrie (1821-1887), except that it arguably wasn’t as he consciously modelled it on the McManus Gallery in Dundee, which was the work of George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) in 1867. While copying someone else’s design still takes skill, I’m not at all sure that you should get full credit for so doing.
As one might expect, the town hall bears the arms of the burgh on its exterior (on the rectangular panel above the window above the door). These depict ‘Our Lord on His Cross’ in proper (i.e., natural) colours. When the burgh became Inverness District in 1975, new arms were granted which combined this with other elements but they too became defunct when Highland Council became a unity authority. In 2001, Inverness was granted city status but, without a council or equivalent body of its own, Lord Lyon, King of Arms refuses to re-grant the arms on the basis that no legal persona exists to receive them.
The wolves were added in 2018 during refurbishment, when two stone dogs that had stood in their place were accidentally misplaced after removal. When a search for the missing dogs failed to reveal them, the wolves were commissioned as replacements. Naturally, the dogs were then immediately rediscovered – they now flank the gabled window in the centre of the roof.
An Idle Evening
Having unlocked my card, I headed to my hotel and successfully checked in and then, after a shower and change of clothes, I went in search of dinner. A pleasantly restful evening followed in which I allowed my feet to recover from the injuries inflicted by my old shoes.
Inverness Railway Station
In the morning, it was time for me to return home. I thus made my way to Inverness railway station. This was opened in 1855 as the western terminus of the Inverness and Nairn Railway and was originally designed by Joseph Mitchell though his buildings no longer survive – British Rail swept them away in the late 1960s.
Egypt & Sudan Memorial
Outside the station stands another of those war memorials topped by a soldier but, in this case, the soldier predates the issue of Brodie helmet and Lee-Enfield rifle. But not, perhaps surprisingly, khaki field uniforms.
In case the inscriptions ‘Tel-El-Kebir’, ‘Khartoum’ and ‘Egypt’ don’t give it away, this is a memorial to those lost in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 and the Sudan Campaign (1882-1887). The soldier depicted is a Cameron Highlander and was sculpted by George Wade (1853-1933), an artist not to be confused with his military namesake and road-builder, Field Marshal George Wade (1673-1748).
I caught a train from Inverness to Edinburgh, there changing for another to London. As I whizzed southwards, I promised myself that I would soon be back to continue. Almost four months on, I have so far failed to keep that promise, thanks to various distractions and a heatwave that I didn’t fancy walking in. But I will be back, that’s for sure…
This time: 18 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,131 miles